Until the most recent release of the Nixon/Kissinger tapes, what were the permitted justifications for saying in advance that the slaughter of Jews in gas chambers by a hostile foreign dictatorship would not be "an American concern"? Let's agree that we do not know. It didn't seem all that probable that the question would come up. Or, at least, not all that likely that the statement would turn out to have been made, and calmly received, in the Oval Office. I was present at Madison Square Garden in 1985 when Louis Farrakhan warned the Jews to remember that "when [God] puts you in the ovens, you're there forever," but condemnation was swift and universal, and, in any case, Farrakhan's tenure in the demented fringe was already a given.
Now, however, it seems we do know the excuses and the rationalizations. Here's one, from David Harris of the American Jewish Committee: "Perhaps Kissinger felt that, as a Jew, he had to go the extra mile to prove to the president that there was no question of where his loyalties lay."* And here's another, from Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League: "The anti-Jewish prejudice which permeated the Nixon presidency and White House undoubtedly created an environment of intimidation for those who did not share the president's bigotry. Dr. Kissinger was clearly not immune to that intimidation." Want more? Under the heading, "A Defense of Kissinger, From Prominent Jews," Mortimer Zuckerman, Kenneth Bialkin, and James Tisch wrote to the New York Times to say that "Mr. Kissinger consistently played a constructive role vis-à-vis Israel both as national security adviser and secretary of state, especially when the United States extended dramatic assistance to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War." They asked that "the fuller Kissinger record should be remembered" and, for good measure, that "the critics of Mr. Kissinger should remember the context of his entire life." Finally, Kissinger himself has favored us with the following: At that time in 1973, he reminds us, the Nixon administration was being pressed by Sens. Jacob Javits and Henry Jackson to link Soviet trade privileges to emigration rights for Russian Jews. "The conversation at issue arose not as a policy statement by me but in response to a request by the president that I should appeal to Sens. Javits and Jackson and explain why we thought their approach unwise."
But Kissinger didn't say something cold and Metternichian to the effect that Jewish interest should come second to détente. He deliberately said gas chambers! If we are going to lower our whole standard of condemnation for such talk (and it seems that we have somehow agreed to do so), then it cannot and must not be in response to contemptible pseudo-reasonings like these.
Let us take the statements in order. Harris and Foxman at least assume what we know for many other reasons to be true: Richard Nixon was a psychopathic anti-Semite. Is Kissinger so base as to accept their defense—that he was cringing before a Jew-baiter? Surely this, too, is "hurtful" to him (the revealing term he employs for reading criticism of his words rather than for their utterance)? He declines even to discuss the subject, though it has come up on countless previous Nixon tapes. The difference on this occasion is stark: The other recordings have Nixon giving vent to his dirty obsession while Kissinger makes fawning responses. This time, it is Kissinger who goes as far as any pick-nose anti-Semite can go. And Nixon doesn't bother to grunt his approval. Not even he demanded so much of his eager toady. Of the Zuckerman-Bialkin-Tisch school of realpolitik, nothing much needs to be said. They refer to the "shock and dismay of some in the Jewish community"—as if only that community was entitled to shock or dismay—while quite omitting even the usual formality of expressing any disapproval of their own. To them, pre-approval of genocide, offered freely to a racist crook, is forgivable if the speaker is otherwise more or less uncritically pro-Israel. Add to this the other excuses of Jewish officialdom—that the pre-approval is also excusable when used to appease the evil mood swings of a criminal president—and you have the thesaurus of apologetics more or less complete. Kissinger's own defense—that pre-approval of gas chambers was his thinking-aloud dress rehearsal for an "appeal to Sens. Javits and Jackson"—is of course unique to him.
So our culture has once again suffered a degradation by the need to explain away the career of this disgusting individual. And what if we did, indeed, accept the invitation to "remember the context of his entire life"? Here's what we would find: the secret and illegal bombing of Indochina, explicitly timed and prolonged to suit the career prospects of Nixon and Kissinger. The pair's open support for the Pakistani army's 1971 genocide in Bangladesh, of the architect of which, Gen. Yahya Khan, Kissinger was able to say: "Yahya hasn't had so much fun since the last Hindu massacre." Kissinger's long and warm personal relationship with the managers of other human abattoirs in Chile and Argentina, as well as his role in bringing them to power by the covert use of violence. The support and permission for the mass murder in East Timor, again personally guaranteed by Kissinger to his Indonesian clients. His public endorsement of the Chinese Communist Party's sanguinary decision to clear Tiananmen Square in 1989. His advice to President Gerald Ford to refuse Alexander Solzhenitsyn an invitation to the White House (another favor, as with spitting on Soviet Jewry, to his friend Leonid Brezhnev). His decision to allow Saddam Hussein to slaughter the Kurds after promising them American support. His backing for a fascist coup in Cyprus in 1974 and then his defense of the brutal Turkish invasion of the island. His advice to the Israelis, at the beginning of the first intifada, to throw the press out of the West Bank and go for all-out repression. His view that ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia was something about which nothing could be done. Forget the criminal aspect here (or forget it if you can). All those policies were also political and diplomatic disasters.
We possess a remarkably complete record of all this, in and out of office, most of it based solidly on U.S. government documents. (The gloating over Bangladesh comes from July 19, 1971.) And it's horribly interesting to note how often the cables and minutes show him displaying a definite relish for the business of murder and dictatorship, a heavy and nasty jokiness (foreign policy is not "a missionary activity") that was by no means always directed, bad as that would have been, at gratifying his diseased and disordered boss. Every time American career diplomats in the field became sickened at the policy, which was not seldom, Kissinger was there to shower them with contempt or to have them silenced. The gas-chamber counselor is consistent with every other version of him that we have.
To permit this gross new revelation to fade, or be forgiven, would be to devalue our most essential standard of what constitutes the unpardonable. And for what? For the reputation of a man who turns out to be not even a Holocaust denier but a Holocaust affirmer. There has to be a moral limit, and either this has to be it or we must cease pretending to ourselves that we observe one.
Update, Dec. 29, 2010: The American Jewish Committee believes that the quote from executive director David Harris that appeared in the New York Times misrepresents the AJC's position. You can read Harris' full statement here.
Christopher Hitchens responds: It's a little silly to attack any excerpt or quotation for being "out of context," since an excerpt or quotation is an extract by definition. The compact that a writer/reporter makes with the readership is the implicit promise to ensure that the extract does not give a misleading impression of the whole.
David Harris wrote or spoke 90 words on the subject of what I'll neutrally call Henry Kissinger's indifference to gas chambers. Of these words, 49, or almost half, were devoted to a loose speculation that blamed Richard Nixon personally, or his "administration" impersonally, for causing Kissinger's views to be uttered. Of those 49 words, I cited 30, or one-third. Without disrespect to Mr. Harris, I think few would disagree that they were the most "quotable" ones. They also conveyed the evident purpose of the statement, which was to redirect attention to Kissinger's boss and frequent co-conspirator. Were it not for this, there would have been nothing in the statement worth citing at all. (I do not know, but would be interested to discover, whether the AJC has criticized the New York Times for making the same decision and failing to give Harris' statement in its entirety.)
I did not suggest that the AJC failed to register any criticism of Kissinger. Indeed, were they not so eager to wrench my own words from their "context," they would notice that I took care to specify that only Mortimer Zuckerman and his co-signers were in such a rush to exculpation as to omit that formality. The opening of the Dec. 11 press release speaks of the AJC being "dismayed" by gas-chamber talk, and Harris goes so far as to describe it as "chilling." My article, which concerned the mutedness of so many responses, might have been strengthened if I had had space to include these ringing expressions, too.
The last sentence of Harris' statement states that "it's hard to find the right words" in which to express condemnation (of the "remarks," rather than their author). Perhaps for him it is. When he finds the right words, I shall be happy to draw attention to them.
( Return to the original sentence.)
From the American Jewish Committee: If there was ever a textbook example of a straw man argument, it is Christopher Hitchens' misrepresentation of AJC's response to the outrageous Kissinger-Nixon tapes.
Christopher denies suggesting that AJC failed to register criticism of Kissinger. But in his article, he kicks off his litany of "rationalizations" with a quote from our own David Harris, who was twice detained by the KGB because of his 15-year activism on behalf of Soviet Jews. Later on, he refers to Harris' comments as a "defense."
They key point is this: Before Harris speculated over the reasons for Kissinger's remarks, he stated, "That a German Jew who fled the Nazis could speak of a genocidal outcome in such callous tones is truly chilling." That is an unambiguous condemnation, and one we stand by.
Additionally, we expressed our revulsion at the graphic language concerning "gas chambers." Christopher was also struck by this, though he does not credit us for sharing both his observation and reaction.
Whether Kissinger experienced heightened anxiety by dint of being a Jew serving a President who clearly loathed Jews is a subsidiary factor here. What matters for AJC— an organization that helped spearhead the Soviet Jewry campaign, and one that, for decades, has worked tirelessly on the issues of Holocaust commemoration and memory—is that Kissinger's comments were shameful and disgraceful.
Christopher condemns those comments as part of his personal campaign against Kissinger. We condemn them because they touch upon the core of our very institutional being.
From Christopher Hitchens: Well, first let's be generous. "Shameful and disgraceful" are much less ambivalent than "dismaying" or "chilling" and seem intended to express real condemnation of the offender (which the preceding more neutral terms were designed to avoid doing). So I don't think that this has been a waste of time.
Rationalization is a fairly objective word, calling attention to a novel or plausible attempt at an explanation of something, while expressing doubt as to its motives. In retrospect, perhaps the AJC would rather have concentrated their attention on the chief figure in this. (I lazily said that "almost half" of Harris' words on Kissinger were directed at Nixon; in fact it was rather more than half.) So I must still insist that a lot of the "straw" was already on the scene when I got there.
Talking of stray straws, this is the second time we are told that Harris was detained for his exemplary work for Soviet Jews. But I fail to see quite what bearing it has. I was inconvenienced myself, for the same reason, by the Yugoslav police during the post-Helsinki summit in Belgrade in 1977. It doesn't give me any particular standing in an argument over Kissinger's central and pivotal role in an administration that the AJC elsewhere concedes as having "normalized" racism.
It's perfectly true that I have been writing for years that Henry Kissinger has the mind and the record of a psychopathic criminal. It's also not the first time that I have written about his collusion with Nixon in the mouthing of anti-Jewish obscenities. But on this occasion, as I tried to point out, it was he who was the initiator and who went as far as any racist could go. That fact seemed to me to call for more than a routine comment—or a comment that occurred in Paragraph 4 of a four-paragraph statement.
I don't see that this focus entitles anyone at the AJC to imply that I am less revolted by gas-chamber talk than they are or that my individual revulsion is weaker than their "institutional" (somehow an odd choice) form of it. It's certainly not the first time that I have written about anti-Semitism as a lethal poison in its own right, and by whomsoever expressed.
Possibly the AJC still feels that its original statement said all that was needful. Something in the tone of this exchange, however, hints to me that they feel they could and should have done better. Which they now have. At any rate, I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify my own position.